The US is pushing negotiations with the Taliban in a bid to cut its losses and leave Afghanistan. But the recent India-Pakistan conflagration over Kashmir has exposed the treacherous fault lines in one of the world’s most dangerous regions.
On Wednesday, February 27, shortly after Pakistan announced that it had captured an Indian Air Force pilot following an aerial dogfight over Kashmir, the Taliban issued a “statement” warning that India-Pakistan clashes would affect Afghan peace negotiations.
“The continuation of such conflict will affect the Afghanistan peace process,” Reuters quoted Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid as saying.
But hours later, Mujahid made an uncharacteristic “clarification” in English on Twitter. “@Reuters has published a fake report citing the spokesman of Islamic Emirate regarding #Pakistan-#India tensions, we have not talked to any media outlet regarding this issue at all,” he said.
#Clarification@Reuters has published a fake report citing the spokesman of Islamic Emirate regarding #Pakistan–#India tensions, we have not talked to any media outlet regarding this issue at all – Mujahid
Zabihullah (ذبیح الله م ) (@Zabihullah_4) February 27, 2019
The fake news machine had apparently struck the Taliban’s communications system, forcing the militant Islamist group to issue the uncharacteristic disclaimer on Twitter. But the retraction laid bare the knotty links and fissures threatening one of the world’s most dangerous regions.
The Taliban often takes liberties with the truth, falsely claiming attacks, exaggerating death tolls and slamming reports in the Western media. But in its rush to distance itself from the tensions between India and Pakistan, the Taliban inadvertently exposed an element of truth that did not escape the notice of seasoned analysts.
“It’s difficult of course to decode the dynamics of the messaging, but it’s not unlikely that the Taliban might make a statement like this. There has always been a concern that Pakistan could leverage the Afghanistan theatre as a bargaining position — not just with India, but also the world community,” said Avinash Paliwal, a lecturer at SOAS University of London and author of the book, My Enemy’s Enemy, in an interview with FRANCE 24.
Three countries with entwined fates
Pakistan has long used militant groups as tool to influence or destabilise its neighbours, Afghanistan and India. The policy has entwined the fates of the three countries, locking them across disputed colonial borders in a historical mistrust that has periodically boiled over into covert and conventional wars.
With the Trump administration eyeing an end to America’s 18-year engagement in Afghanistan, the pieces of the geopolitical chess game are moving fast, leaving the international community scrambling to keep up with the likely impact on the region and beyond.
No ceasefire preconditions
The latest round of talks in Doha was supposed to end on February 28, with a final communiqué. But following Wednesday’s closed-door sessions, delegates announced a two-day break, with negotiations set to resume over the weekend.
“They said the break was to allow representatives to conduct further consultations with leadership on both sides as they discuss technical matters. I believe the talks could spill into next week,” said veteran Afghan journalist Sami Yousafzai said earlier this week in a phone interview with FRANCE 24 from Doha.
There are numerous problems dogging the US-Taliban talks, notably the absence of the Afghan government, which the militant group considers illegitimate. US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad failed to make a Taliban ceasefire a precondition for the talks. Meanwhile, attacks – including a deadly Friday assault on an Afghan military base in Helmand, home to some US military advisers – continue.
‘When Afghanistan stops burning, Kashmir burns’
Given the myriad challenges to be tackled during the talks, India-Pakistan tensions did not appear to be the reason for the break, Yousafzai explained. “I think if that was the case, they would have simply canceled the talks. He added, however, that fallout from the India-Pakistan tensions could not be completely ruled out.
By Friday, tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad appeared to have eased.
The escalation was sparked by a deadly February 14 suicide bombing in Indian-administered Kashmir that killed more than 40 Indian paramilitary police officers. A Pakistan-based militant group, Jaish-e-Muhammed, claimed the attack, prompting Indian aerial strikes in Pakistani territory and tit-for-tat attacks by the two arch enemies.
Amid mounting international pressure on both sides, Pakistan’s release of the captured Indian pilot on Friday helped deescalate the crisis – for the moment.
But the longstanding Kashmir crisis is far from resolved and conflagrations between India and Pakistan are likely to erupt again in the future.
That’s where the dynamics of the links between Afghanistan and Kashmir come in.
“As the US military role and the NATO presence in Afghanistan starts winding down, a lot of Pakistan-based militant groups have an incentive to redirect their focus to India. Groups like Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba that were operating in Afghanistan no longer have Western troops to target, giving them the motivation to refocus their attention on India-administeredKashmir –and their handlers in Pakistan would see things the same way,” said Michael Kugelman from the Washington DC-based Wilson Center in an interview with FRANCE 24.
It’s a linkage Paliwal sums up with the adage, “When Afghanistan stops burning, Kashmir starts burning.”
The maxim dates back to 1989, the year Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan and the Kashmir insurgency kicked off. When Moscow withdrew its troops from Afghanistan 30 years ago, thousands of mujahideen from Pakistan and beyond redirected their fight to Kashmir, the only Muslim-majority region in Hindu- dominated India.
Paliwal, however, is not so sure the Afghanistan-Kashmir adage still holds. “The model may not work today. Since 2013, the situation has worsened simultaneously in Afghanistan and Kashmir,” he noted.
Local grievances fuel Kashmir insurgency
The situation has also deteriorated for Kashmiris bearing the brunt of brutal crackdowns by the Indian security forces, creating the perfect recruitment grounds for Pakistan-based militant groups.
The suicide bomber in the recent attack against Indian security forces, for instance, was a local Kashmiri youth. Neighbours in his southern Kashmiri village told Indian media the 22-year-old high school dropout joined the insurgency after his cousin was killed in “an encounter” with Indian security forces.
“Encounter” is a term frequently used by security officials in South Asia to describe killings allegedly in self-defence. Human rights activists say the term is often a euphemism for extrajudicial killings or a disproportionate use of force by security officials to “finish off” potentially troublesome individuals without the bother of arresting and charging them.
“The heavy-handed security tactics that animate Kashmiris have also led to angry denunciations from Islamabad and calls for the international community to focus more attention on Kashmir – a plea that has not been received well in New Delhi,” wrote Kugelman in a recent Foreign Policy column.
The enemy of my enemy
While India’s failure to address the human rights violations are not serving its security interests, experts warn that New Delhi may be missing the boat on the Afghan peace process – which could impact the situation in Kashmir.
“India has officially maintained its position that the peace process should be Afghan-owned and Afghan-led. New Delhi wants the Kabul government to be the key player in the negotiations and supports parties that are not supported by Pakistan,” said Paliwal, referring to India’s “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” policy in Afghanistan.
But the Taliban has so far refused to engage in any dialogue with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s administration in Kabul, constraining India’s room to maneuver.
New Delhi has historically sought to contain Islamabad’s influence in Afghanistan, aligning itself with proxies and powers opposed to Pakistan or Pakistan-backed groups. Following the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan for instance, India – along with Iran and Russia – supported the Northern Alliance in the 1990s against the Pakistani-backed Taliban.
The alliance, however, failed to contain the Taliban or stop it from seizing control of Kabul and much of Afghanistan by 1996.
More than two decades later, the Taliban are once again on the winning side with a military superpower focused on cutting its losses in Afghanistan and calling it quits.
Russia and Iran – two old Taliban foes – have also been making overtures to their historic enemy, complicating the power chess game in Afghanistan. With no winning strategy in sight, India has been attempting to reach out to the Taliban via backdoor channels, according to Paliwal. “It’s been a very low level outreach and nothing much came from it. It was more an exercise in getting a sense of the other side,” he explained.
At stake are massive Afghanistan-based development projects, estimated at around $2 billion, in which India has invested since the 2001 US-led military operation. “But the Taliban remain unable to guarantee the protection of Indian interests and installations after a US withdrawal,” wrote Paliwal in a Foreign Policy column co-written with Harsh Pant, a lecturer at King’s College London and with the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation.
Giving peace no chance
One of the channels to make inroads with all parties in Afghanistan would be for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to engage with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s administration.
While the powerful Pakistani military has a history of using jihadist groups as proxies in regional power games, there are growing signs that the Pakistani populace – along with democratically-elected civilian governments – are growing weary of their country being used (and abused) by militant Islamist groups.
But India’s right-wing, Hindu nationalist government lacks the imagination, flexibility or will to exploit the situation.
In a scathing rebuke of Modi’s lack of foreign policy initiative, Bharat Karnad, a professor at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, noted, “Common sense, which is generally missing in our foreign policy, would suggest that talks, any kind of formal or even back-channel dialogue, [are] more likely to incentivize Islamabad…to clamp down on the jihadis.” But, Karnad added, the Modi administration has failed to work with Islamabad “to put a lid on potential Islamist troublemakers that the Imran [Khan] regime is wary about”.
The recent tensions between India and Pakistan sparked by the February 14 suicide bombing could provide an incentive to New Delhi to restart stalled Kashmir peace talks with Islamabad.
During the latest conflagration, Pakistan’s Khan issued a call to his Indian counterpart to re-open peace negotiations. But Modi has failed to respond. With critical general elections just weeks away, the Indian prime minister has been in campaign mode, playing to his right-wing Hindu nationalist base by vowing to “punish Pakistan”.
But if negotiations between India and Pakistan are not restarted, a peace process on Pakistan’s other border with Afghanistan is likely to escalate tensions once again in Kashmir.
The Indian government’s hardline position during the latest Kashmir conflagration is unlikely to sway Pakistan’s generals from abandoning their use of jihadist groups as proxy tools.
“For the Pakistani military, the calculus is very simple – these [jihadist] groups are assets that help Pakistan push back against unfriendly forces in the region,” explained Kugelman. “Pakistan’s conventional military forces are inferior to India’s, and it looks to asymmetrical means. It will take a lot to get Pakistan to change the calculus.”